David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method makes all those Merchant/Ivory period pieces seem like Die Hard sequels; this story about the curdled friendship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud makes Chess Club Treasurer seem like a far more exciting career choice than psychoanalyst. Like every director, Cronenberg has made boring movies before (M. Butterfly, Naked Lunch), but he’s never made one this crushingly dull and anonymous. Even the two scenes in which Keira Knightley gets spanked during sex are tasteful and restrained — Masterpiece Theatre from the man who once made a truly kinky movie about people who got off on car accidents (Crash).
If you’re familiar with Cronenberg’s long-standing fascination with body horror — the repulsion and terror you feel when your own flesh and blood is transformed or violated — then you can understand what drew the filmmaker to this adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure. Unfortunately, Cronenberg has never fared too well at exploring the horror of the mind (Spider and eXistenZ were two of his weakest films) and he all but falls flat on his face with this anemic chamber drama in which Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) exchange letters, and eventually become friends, over the treatment of a young woman, Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), who claims to have the ability to read people’s minds and talks about interplanetary travel.
Spielrein, who would famously go on to become one of the world’s first female psychoanalysts, is initially played by Knightley as a screaming bundle of tics and mannerisms (when the character is having one of her fits, Knightley juts her jaw out so far you fear she will dislocate it). But after a couple of years of treatment under Jung , who applies Freud’s still-untested psychoanalysis theories to his patient, she begins to improve, and Knightley tones down her ferocious overacting to something of a simmer.
The speculation in A Dangerous Method — which was shot in many of the actual locations where the story takes place including Freud’s home in Vienna and the Burgholzli Hospital in Zurich and was written with obvious intelligence and attention to historical fact — is that Jung and Spielrein had an affair prompted by her growing awareness in therapy that she had no sexual experience. Her doctor was happy to oblige, even though Jung increasingly disagreed with Freud’s tendency to interpret everything in sexual terms. This may all be of great interest to Psych 101 students and professional shrinks — even that simple summary makes the movie sound far more intriguing than it plays — but Cronenberg is too wrapped up in the historical importance of this story to notice what a drab and uninvolving picture he’s made.
Even a supporting turn by Vincent Cassell as Otto Gross, a fellow psychiatrist, cocaine addict and unapologetic adulterer, fails to enliven the movie: A Dangerous Method makes even a cokehead hedonist boring. All you notice is Mortensen’s contact lenses and his reliance on a pipe as a prop; Fassbender’s inability to find Jung’s soul; and Knightley’s constant flailings and annoying tics. When Spielrein utters the line “That’s what she said,” she’s referring to her mother, but I couldn’t help but chuckle anyway. Immature? Don’t blame me; blame A Dangerous Method.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel.
Director: David Cronenberg.
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton. Based on his play The Talking Cure.
Producer: Jeremy Thomas.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 99 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Jan. 20 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway, Paradise, Boynton Beach; in Palm Beach: Delray, Palace, Shadowood.